As we live through the years of the future that old media told us about, we witness a reality previous generations couldn’t foretell. We’ve been blessed in our culture with crafty storytellers like Rod Serling to help us cope with what our future could become or what’s already here. Serling’s The Twilight Zone is the first and most obvious influence to Charlie Brooker’s hard science-fiction series. Black Mirror is easily this generation’s attempt to take a look into our future. A future that is surrounded by technology and our response to it. With all that said, fellow BagoGames staffer Kailan May and I decided we wanted to dig a little deeper into the series than our review.
Dylan: What were your thoughts on Black Mirror prior to the third season?
Kailan: Prior to Season 3, Black Mirror struck me as this unique bleak traversal into the societal impact of technology. Always grasping onto the seeds our current world holds and blowing them up to a level that horrifies us. Yet always harboring a haunting believability this is a world we could see within a hundred years or so. While Season 1 stormed onto the scene with the shocking The National Anthem, Fifteen Million Merits, and The Entire History of You, Season 2 never really disappointed but never exceeded expectations or surprised. I can’t criticise White Bear or The Waldo Moment at all (nor the season’s weak point Be Right Back), nor could I say they gripped me like Season 1 did. And I checked out White Christmas shortly before the release of Season 3, which was another excellent venture into the bleak technological future.
Dylan: I mostly agree with your assessment of the series, but disagree on the varying quality of the episodes. I don’t want to get too deep into it here, as I’m sure we’ll bring them up in our discussion for Season 3, but The Entire History of You and Be Right Back (along with White Christmas) were my favorite episodes because they focused on the human experience in a world that has been revolutionized by technology. But by the end of every episode of the series, we’re left with a character that’s usually hit rock bottom and it left me with a worrying feeling that we would get more of the same this season.
Kailan: I think it’s interesting you bring up favorite episodes, as I was going to ask about yours prior to Season 3, mine being Fifteen Million Merits. As not only it took a swing at things like reality TV and the creepy-at-times hatred of overweight people in media, but remembered to star a human cast inside. Even more so, it depicted their reactions to the world around and how it can erode the people within. How the protagonist even has a 1984 moment where, at an absolute breaking point and absolute rebellion, he is converted to being part of the problem.
I think we both agree a major part of Black Mirror isn’t just depicting dystopian worlds of bleakness, but also remembering there are people inside it with their own reactions. Naturally with an arc that ends with hitting rock bottom, which while depressing, I found interesting to observe. It’s depressing in the same way people enjoy films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind due to its depressing nature.
Dylan: Fifteen Million Merits is one of the strongest of the series, but falters a little upon execution of the ending. It’s a difficult subject to be subtle about, but it really feels like beating a dead horse by the third or fourth time we see Rupert Everett as a Simon Cowell-esque talent show host berating people.
I don’t mind the depressing ending in the slightest. I’m not exactly the kind of person to watch something for escapism or happiness, but by the time the second season was over, it felt like a sad or unhappy ending was almost retrofitted in because we, as an audience, were expecting it and that had become a trademark on the show by that point. But I think it’s safe to say that Season 3 is a bit of a departure in that sense and a few others as well.
Kailan: I think it is a distinct departure for Black Mirror, for better and for worse. So maybe we should leap into the first episode of the season, Nosedive. In the world of this episode, you’re rated on a scale of 5 for everything you do by everyone else. The higher the average rating, the more perks you get. Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard), rated at a 4.2, wants to get to a 4.5 so she can move into a nicer home slightly out of her price range. Fortunately, her childhood friend at a 4.8 invites her to her wedding (filled with people over a 4.5) to do a speech, which Lacie hopes can be rated high enough, enough times, to get her average up to 4.5 or higher. In classic Black Mirror fashion, things go wrong.
Dylan: And this is the perfect episode to begin the season on. Not in terms of it being my favorite episode, (though it is among the better ones) it really throws seasoned Black Mirror fans for a loop from the onset with its bright pastel color scheme to a different type of utopian nightmare. This being the first episode set in the U.S., it’s very interesting to see the dynamic of the series change. A large part of this is due to the writing of Rashida Jones and Mike Schur from Parks & Recreation. But it’s an episode that doesn’t feel completely hopeless, yet still leaves us with a sense of unease.
I also don’t want to forget the performance by Bryce Dallas Howard which is probably the best performance she’s given up to this point. This episode lives and dies with her and she sells the premise completely.
Kailan: Oh boy, I did wonder how long we’d get into this season before we start disagreeing. Nosedive, for me, is definitely the worst episode in Black Mirror for me. Not only is it set in the U.S., but I could tell from the get-go it was written by U.S. writers. While I could trash a lot of the writing, (how characters feel more caricatures than people, how the protagonist’s arc feels shake and how the ending is unfulfilling) a lot of the problems boil down to characters serving the story. The brother is a gamer/social outcast, because it serves the story. A character early on becomes socially isolated, because it serves the story. The conflicts happen, because it serves the story.
Perhaps the most frustrating part is the protagonist’s obsession to get to the wedding no matter what, as there simply are no stakes. She’s not trapped in a system, nor is she trying to escape from it. Her self-imploding only begins halfway through when Cherry Jones, playing a truck-driver, gives her the shove in the only life-filled performance in the entire episode. It just chugs on because it is serving the story and it ends in a way so horrifyingly predictable, you can call it within five minutes.
The fact the story was written by Charlie Brooker but the actual screenplay is written by Rashida Jones and Michael Schur is not lost on me. It shows. It feels unintentionally fake (especially highlighted as the brother feels like a caricature, despite not being hooked into the please-everyone-else mentality of the rating system). Just, ugh. All the actors do a decent enough job with the script, but Cherry Jones is the only one who breathes any life into it.
Dylan: The funny thing about this is that I don’t entirely disagree with you. While I generally enjoy the writers’ work, they’re not the most suited to this type of writing. It has plenty of funny moments, but they’re not the best at getting the basic point across with any sort of subtlety. That being said, it’s not the most subtle of subjects either. Dallas Howard does a great job, because it is a world where everything is fake. Her character is fake, the interactions she has are fake, all because she wants the love and acceptance of a five star rating. Her character is trapped in the system due to her own decisions and pursuit of being possibly liked and loved by her old bully played by Alice Eve. The character of her brother is thin and pretty unnecessary, but never gets too in the way of the overall narrative.
And while I love Cherry Jones and her performance here, the writing in that scene is atrocious. She had to spell out where the rest of the episode was going and there’s no hiding it. That’s not her fault, but it gives her little to add.
Kailan: I’d agree with the fakeness being intentional, but there are characters acting fake where it makes no sense. The brother, the cosplayers, the clerks, they’re caricatures when all they needed was something unusual to remind the audience there is an actual world Lacie lives in. Perhaps I could have bought the character’s desperation to be loved if there was more on the line, if there was a longer-term progression (e.g. The Waldo Moment) or if there was an exterior world to compare it to. I’m not saying Cherry Jones’ writing isn’t atrocious for having to spell everything out, but she was able to deal a much needed gravitas and reality. As is, I had a really bad time and it left low expectations for what was to come.
Dylan: Well considering that we write for a gaming website, yet only one of us writes about games, you must have been excited for the second episode, Playtest. The episode revolves around an American traveler in Europe short on cash, signing up to test a revolutionary new gaming system, only to discover the thrills are a little too real.
Kailan: *Laughs* Perhaps, but I kept my expectations very low after Nosedive. As I said, it was a bad time. Fortunately though Playtest dragged my expectations way back up. I started out worried, as Wyatt Russell plays an American out of his depth a bit too stereotypically at times. However, once the episode rolls along, it went by hard and fast. Does it have a message or a shiver of dystopia? No. There is a final moment at the end that solidifies a point, one that felt grimly coincidental, but it doesn’t manage to make the creeping statements Black Mirror is known for. What Playtest does manage to do instead is provide a good time with enough ‘gotcha’ moments to leave things unpredictable, in an enjoyable way. I probably should have loved it more than I did due to my interest in video games, but it never went beyond surface level acknowledgement of the medium.
Dylan: This is a fun little episode. Probably Black Mirror‘s first complete horror episode and those elements of the episode work. I’m not sure if you’ve seen Richard Linklater’s latest film, Everybody Wants Some!! (Christopher Cross’s review here). Our lead actor has a great part in that film and features a lot of the same charm, so it felt a little cheap to have him here doing the same work, but the similar charm also sells those moments when he’s alone in the house.
A big problem I have is the final twist (or three). It becomes rather nonsensical and downright stupid. I also find it funny that Brooker hired self-professed gamer, Dan Trachtenberg (director of 10 Cloverfield Lane and co-host of the now defunct The Totally Rad Show) as there isn’t a lot showing there here. Apparently there are video game references throughout the episode, but of course, they went right over my head.
Kailan: I’d be wary if they delved too much into video games really, because Black Mirror isn’t a video game show, it’s technological. So they got to appeal to those who aren’t too savvy. I do agree that it does start to become nonsensical and downright stupid, but I admit I’m willing to give them a pass on it. Maybe it is because it’s reminding me of a particular horror film that goes along the same lines near the end. I probably should be wailing on it for giving a technological spin to a cult film but I’m oddly okay with it.
Speaking of technological, our third episode, Shut Up and Dance, was an unusual beast. Namely because it is a modern day episode based in technology people are familiar with. A teenager beats the meat in front of his laptop, when someone hacks into the webcam via spyware his sister accidentally installed. From then, the hacker blackmails him to do a series of seemingly disconnected tasks that begin getting darker. Along the way meeting another blackmailed man in his 40s who may be familiar to a lot of TV fans.
Dylan: I think it’s safe to say that the moral of the story is sisters are the worst and you can’t let them use your shit. But in all seriousness, this episode felts a little too familiar by the end and never ventured into unfamiliar territory enough to make it substantial or particularly interesting.
Kailan: Or that you shouldn’t pirate Black Mirror because all piracy websites have spyware that’ll film you when you have a knuckle-shuffle. *Laughs* You’re right that it never really leaped into unfamiliar territory nor did anything substantial happen. Yet, it may be one of the more human episodes in the series. People aren’t trapped by technology this time, rather instead by the people who utilize it. To be honest, this is now one of my joint favorite episodes in Black Mirror altogether. It is bleak and stars a very flawed cast forced to do the worst things because there’s no way out. While Alex Lawther managed to nail acting as a confused teenager, I think the clicking point came with Jerome Flynn (of Game of Thrones fame) managing to sell a scene that involved goading the younger character into doing something pretty horrible. The episode doesn’t have anything outwardly violent and horrible happen, but it is tense all the way through. Tense and incredibly real. With the final moments into a tragic fall to ‘Radiohead’s Exit Music (For a Film).’ If there was a Black Mirror episode that I could point to and speak of the perfect display of humanity in the program, it would be this one.
It isn’t substantial in the sense of eventful, but I guess you could call it substantial in how hard it breaks its characters.
Dylan: I just thought it came to the same conclusions that White Bear did along with feeling fairly pedestrian as we knew there would be some twist when there didn’t need to be one. Shut Up and Dance is the one episode that would have worked better without that twist and stuck with being a little straightforward. There are two characters which up to that point, we figured only one of them had done something wrong, and gave the moments of the robbery and gas station something real and human. I’ll also go out there and say that Radiohead is my favorite band and Westworld is arguably doing the best (and most) with their music. Maybe the dumb twist burned me on this one. The episode made me feel angry for all the wrong reasons. It’s in the running for my least favorite episode in the history of the show. But a shout out to Charlie Brooker for the correct use of an internet meme.
Kailan: The twist worked for me. I guess I am going to have to go into very mild spoilers: the protagonist isn’t just blackmailed for the act of beating off. Most of the episode, I did have a constant questions of “why go through all this trouble because you did a very natural act?”, with even Jerome Flynn’s character calling him out on it. So I was pleased it was something more, and to me it made the downfall all the more tragic. That the protagonist’s life is ruined forever for being caught doing “a very bad thing.” If it was straightforward, I would be begging the question why he didn’t just walk away. With the twist, he had a reason and it is heart-breaking in the reveal.
Perhaps it is a case, the delivery did a lot of the mileage for me though. The music, the phone call, the shots? All done after everything before it?
Dylan: I actually believed a kid like him would run around town just so he wouldn’t have to deal with that humiliation from the people in his life. Adding the other moments made it feel strained. Especially since that final subject used against him is very complicated and it not explored with much depth. But I can understand where you’re coming from.
Kailan: I think it is a subject where mileage will vary wildly. I’ve seen some people comment he deserved the events. I disagree, but oh well, it is a loaded subject.
Dylan: Now that we’re halfway through, we’ve been witness to a very uneven season of Black Mirror. I think it’s safe to say that we were both disappointed by some episodes, but San Junipero is an episode I’m curious to get your thoughts on. Set in the seaside town of San Junipero in 1987, two women meet in a club and begin a relationship that takes many different twists and turns. But not in the way you would think.
I actually want to come right out and say that I unabashedly love this episode and everything that it’s trying to do.
Kailan: If you told me flat out: “Hey, what about a Black Mirror episode where there is no technological dystopia, and the technology helps two people?” I’d wonder if you missed the point of the show. Except, well, I actually love the episode too. It’s definitely tied with Shut Up and Dance & Fifteen Million Merits for favorite episodes in the show, despite the wildly different approach to things. I love the nostalgia for prior decades, I love how they explore who the characters are and I love how they bounce off of each other and change due to that. I even love the light-hearted ending (as long as you don’t think too hard about the creepy implications). I also adore the book-ending the episode does. When a particular song re-appears at the end, I wanted to scream “oh god dammit!” in a good way.
This episode is set in the U.S.. This time though, it not only works, but also has the added bonus of bouncing off America’s unique culture towards particular…things.
It is almost a twist that things end up improving for the characters compared to the starting point; it is bizarre and yet it works.
Dylan: San Junipero really changed my thoughts on what Black Mirror could be as a show and what it wants to do over time. Like the best episodes of the show, it’s about the people in their respective situation and what they’re going through. This also turns out to be one of those times where if there wasn’t a twist, I might have been just as happy. Our two leads, played by Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, are excellent and have so much chemistry. And this is the only time I’ve cried during any episode of this show. The very end is wonderfully cheeky and compares to another film you referenced earlier, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With that being said, it’s not a 1:1 comparison, but the thematic potential is so similar. San Junipero is far and away the most emotionally satisfying hour the show has offered you. And I just need to say that I love how on the nose the final song was.
Kailan: That final song acting as a book-ending was so lovely.
Perhaps we should dive into episode five, which couldn’t be more tonally different if they were to splice scenes from A Serbian Film or Cannibal Holocaust in. A humanoid alien species called the Roaches are kept in check by the army who kill them on sight. One soldier, after raiding on Roach den is accidentally blinded by an electronic device that begins to show after-effects.
There are brief moments of interest in Men Against Fire, and there’s some good ideas floating about, but sadly it did nothing for me.
Dylan: I’m right there with you. Men Against Fire lacks a real spark that could’ve livened up the proceedings. I feel like this episode takes a little too long to get to its point and therefore wastes too much of our time. The point comes across just fine, it’s not that I don’t get what the episode was trying to say, it just didn’t land like I think it wanted to.
It goes into altering your perceptions like Playtest. There’s the bleak future of White Bear. It’s just a piecemeal episode.
Kailan: Not only does it potter about with the point it’s trying to make, but it commits the sin of saying, not showing. The scene involving Stripe (Malachi Kirby) and Arquette (Michael Kelly) purely works on Kelly’s ability as an actor. Besides that, too often I was reminded of how 1984 did a similar thing of explaining its hand for way too long. Even then, it feels like it could have been better revealed over time than just shoved in front of you.
Besides that, Raiman (Madeline Brewer) feels written for a male actor in mind way too hard. Brewer tries to deliver, but I kept being reminded of the sociopathic archetype in military films. The type who enjoy killing perhaps a bit too much.
It definitely has a good idea on its hand, and the Raiman character oddly reinforces it well, but squanders it by rushing the reveal at the end rather than slowly unravelling it.
Dylan: I want to add that Ariane Labed and Sarah Snook, two amazing character actors, are completely wasted in their thankless roles. They’re either there for explaining the plot or looking helpless. We also get our first instance of gratuitous nudity. Is this episode misogynistic?
Kailan: I don’t think it is misogynistic. If you’re referring to the scene with nudity, I think it works as sexual motivation for the character, almost used as psychological relief for the protagonist. In terms of Raiman, she feels more written badly than slighted against due to her gender. I really don’t think there’s anything is say about their gender.
Dylan: Half of this season has female lead characters and the show has a female co-showrunner, so the scene just seems a little weird to me in context. Maybe it just didn’t work for me.
Kailan: I think most of the episode didn’t work for me. It was just a middling muddle of “technically works.”
Dylan: Let’s get onto our final episode, Hated in the Nation. After a tabloid jounalist dies under mysterious circumstances, a twitter-like hashtag leads a detective and her new tech-savvy trainee on a chase for something far more sinister than either of them expected.
Kailan: Overall, I thought it was simply okay. While it isn’t like Men Against Fire where it had good ideas but was dragged down by poor execution, this was just an okay idea with okay execution. Very inoffensive and with a point that doesn’t feel like much of one.
On a side note, I smirked at how familiar the tabloid journalist was.
Dylan: It felt more like a Swedish cyber-thriller stretched to feature length. Maybe if we got some commentary on the lack of bees and something a little more interesting about internet hatred, it could’ve worked better. But we’re focused on this investigation with the detectives who are incredibly dull. I love Kelly McDonald in almost anything she’s in, but even here she just gets to be the atypical female cop that has no time for family and would rather eat Pringles and open a glass of wine than cook for herself. It’s a world of stereotypes living in a world of clichés.
I must say though that the scene in the cottage for witness protection was very well executed. One of the more intense scenes of the series.
Kailan: It was definitely one of the best scenes in the episode, and to give credit Faye Marsay did give her character an aloof nature that made her feel less generic in what was a cookie-cutter cop episode. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to latch onto here. The internet hatred is dulled by it being the antagonist’s motivation, one that doesn’t sell himself. The bees could have been an option, but it was more of a plot vehicle than anything with any real consequence (besides as a tool to deliver plot to particular figures with unnerving accuracy). I can’t get excited because it did nothing, but I also can’t even get angry at it because there’s nothing particularly bad. Even the scene in question reminded me more of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, rather than feeling like its own distinct form.
The final moment sadly felt tacked on. I admit I had a prediction about Blue, and yet somehow it led to something more drab. It’s like the showrunners just attached as a post-it note with the message, “hopefully this will make the ending more satisfying and interesting.” It doesn’t. It leaves my thirst quenched, but it lacks any nourishment or taste.
Dylan: I find it funny that Brooker has gone on to say that you might see these characters in more episodes and I’m just dumbfounded by that decision.
Kailan: Specifically Blue and Karin, or the entire array of Black Mirror characters?
Dylan: The characters from this episode.
Kailan: Maybe if they had a mini-series dedicated to them, they could have had enough time to breathe life into them? One standalone episode will simply not do.
I think there’s potential, but that’s entirely hinging on the Faye Marsay’s performance as Blue. Even then, the final reveal somehow makes her more boring.
Dylan: I never understood her thought process. I knew her as a genius with computers and her name was a color. *sigh* This was just a mediocre outing.
Kailan: She just seemed aloof with an awareness of technology and internet culture. While Karin was a bit techno-phobig. This is why I’m hoping for more air as the only way to salvage the characters, something to distinguish them.
Summarized Thoughts on Season 3
Dylan: Season 3 is what happens when you get a little bit more freedom and money. Some of those ambitious ideas get to come out and flourish to become something better than any of us could have imagined this show could ever be. Other episodes that would have been fine in the previous seasons just look worse by comparison. But in the end, I’m happy with the season we got and look forward the the next six episodes we’ll be getting sometime next year.
Kailan: The third season feels like it is broadening its horizons. While initially a good thing, it is starting to show signs of quality decline. I don’t think any episode in the first two seasons could have been frowned upon in the same way as a few episodes could be here. Yet, it’s from this loosening of the belt that brought us San Junipero which simultaneously feels like a colossal departure for the expected and a generally excellent episode. I think six more episodes could be good, but I’m keeping very cautious optimism about it. I also found love in Shut Up and Dance, but as you saw here, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps the most interesting part to me is this is the first season with American writing and directing, so we may be seeing more episodes showing an American style. For better or for worse.